New Zealand String Quartet

Can a string quartet truly go wild? That was the strange question that came to mind as the New Zealand String Quartet romped through a hefty program Thursday evening at the Strathmore Mansion.

This mature group of musicians -- violinists Helen Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violist Gillian Ansell and cellist Rolf Gjelstein -- injected the music with a youthful sense of abandon, relentless force and moody aggressiveness. It was all thrilling to hear.

The quartet moved through the swift trills, glistening curlicue phrases and snap pizzicatos of the rarely heard Gyorgy Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 with unwavering energy. While myriad details peeked out, the quartet always maintained a strong, overarching concept of the work. The New Zealand saw this spiky score as an unruly beast, and the musicians yielded to its jagged, propulsive character, delivering an uncommonly fine performance.

After all that turbulence, Jack Body's "Three Transcriptions," which re-creates the sounds of various world instruments in a quartet, sounded downright tame. If the quartet reveled in the harmonic ambiguities of "La Malinconia," the renowned introduction to the last movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat, Op. 18, it went for a hard-driving ride at many points in Franz Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, "Death and the Maiden."

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Savinio Quartet

Washington's abundance of embassies affords us the opportunity to sample the cultural wares of many countries without leaving our city. Certainly the chance to visit the majestic, modernist Italian Embassy would have been reason enough to attend Thursday night's Savinio Quartet concert.

And yet the ensemble from Naples, presented by the Italian Cultural Institute and making its Washington debut, played a program of very serious music without much passion.

Nearly every element was in place for Mozart's "Dissonance" Quartet -- the right notes, good intonation, precision -- but the performance lacked any semblance of emotional depth. Balance and acoustic problems meant that the inner voices -- Rossella Bertucci's second violin and Francesco Solombrino's viola -- were hardly heard over Alberto Maria Ruta's violin and Lorenzo Ceriani's cello.

In contrast, the quartet's ardor surfaced in Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, bringing the music alive in the second movement. The work might be considered an instrumental war requiem. The Savinio depicted Shostakovich's menacing sounds of soldiers demanding entry with the right amount of urgency, and Solombrino's earthy viola was appropriate for the somber largo.

The quartet played Azio Corghi's "Jocs Florals" (1970) with skill and conviction. When the four came together with similar effects, such as pizzicato or enharmonics, sounds of nature were evoked. The work was sparse and random enough that the crinkle of a candy wrapper in the audience could have been misconstrued as part of the piece.

The Savinio Quartet has fine technical ability but would be a much better group if it were able to infuse its performances with more emotion.

-- Gail Wein

Terra Nova Consort

After wresting control of the Andalusia region from the Muslims who had ruled it for several hundred years, the authorities in Renaissance Spain, fearing further cultural resistance, prohibited performances of Moorish music there. Except for records concerning music of the newly reestablished Catholic Church, almost no traces of Andalusian music from the Renaissance have survived.

For a concert presented in conjunction with the Sackler Gallery's "Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain" exhibition, the Terra Nova Consort found a way past this problem: These musicians took secular music, mostly popular songs, from northern Spain, gave it what they believe is the Andalusian touch and presented the results Thursday night at the Freer Gallery's Meyer Auditorium.

Some believe that modern flamenco descended from the Andalusian leyla and zambra, and the consort's arrangements accordingly partook of flamenco's dark instrumental colors and atmosphere of charismatic desperation. Kay Hilton, Nick Tennant and Pat O'Scannell spent much of the concert laying down driving rhythms, complete with hand claps and castanets, while guest artist Tina Chauncey shone in dashing violin solos and winding viol rhapsodies. Playing the vihuela (a guitar relative), David Rogers held everything together with a few poignant plucks, vigorous strumming and the occasional astonishingly florid solo.

The singing disappointed a bit, in part because the consort's instrumentalists, who doubled on vocals, generally sang either a little too quietly or a little too roughly, and in part because of the auditorium's unflattering, luster-free acoustics. Still, when the groove got going beneath the vocal lines, the consort's imagined musical world felt as real (and exciting) as one could want.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

The New Zealand String Quartet delivered Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 with abandon.